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Community Colleges Adjust to Influx of Students

May 04, 2010 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

Minnesota's community colleges are an important resource in the state's education system. In the quest for a middle-class career, the community college system can bridge the gap between high school and a bachelor's degree.
Minnesota's community colleges have seen a drastic increase in student enrollment in the past two years that has strained, but not broken, their educational mission.

A 19 percent increase in the number of credit-seeking students (some students take classes for no credit) means more students in class, more instructors, and more classes offered in the evenings, on Saturdays and on-line to meet demand.

The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system has 25 two-year colleges throughout the state. Century College President Larry Litecky said his college, in White Bear Lake, has seen a 14 percent increase in enrollment between fall 2008 and fall 2009.
He said these new students fall into three categories:
* People who are out of work or are underemployed "and are trying to sharpen their skills or retrain for another career," he said;
* Recent high school graduates "who might have come to us anyway but are here now because there aren't very many job opportunities for 18- and 19-year-olds in the workforce today;"
* Students who might have gone to a four-year college but who can't get loans.

Normandale Community College president Joe Opatz said his school, in Bloomington, had seen an 8 percent increase between 2008 and 2009. He said his school--traditionally a liberal arts school--has seen an uptick in students seeking degrees in areas such as business management, hospitality management and marketing. "They're beefing up their skill set to get back in the marketplace," he said.

Rory Kelly, of Blaine, said he's studying culinary arts at Hennepin Technical College in Brooklyn Park to stay current in the job market. "There's the idea that you can get a job, work at a job and you'll get rewarded, but that's not really the way it is now," he said. "I could be a sous chef in Denver, but without a job, I'd just be an out of work chef. By going to school and getting a degree, I can ultimately find a better job."

Hennepin Tech's enrollment has grown 8 percent since Ashley Thissen started taking classes there in 2006. The nursing student from Shakopee has noticed the difference. "It's much harder to get into the electives now. They fill up really quickly." She said she hasn't seen any decline in the quality of teaching despite the increase of students.

To handle the influx of new students, Opatz said Normandale has had to add classes and instructors and is offering classes at nights and on weekends. Financing such changes is a problem, however. "We're all struggling with state support," Opatz said. According to MnSCU, appropriation per full-year-equivalent student throughout the MnSCU system during the past decade has decreased 16 percent; adjusted for inflation the decrease is 36.5 percent. Normandale relies on tuition for about two-thirds of its revenue and the state for approximately one-third, so any decline in state aide means an increase in tuition if the school wants to make up the difference.

Opatz makes no predictions about what will happen if state funding decreases. He said Normandale has a plan for 3 percent to 5 percent yearly growth and will stick to the plan.

Litecky's enrollment predictions? He doesn't see the loan market loosening or the job market for 18- and 19-year olds expanding in the next several years, and it remains to be seen if people will see continuing education as an imperative when their hours go up or if the job market improves. He's looking to lease space off-campus to hold classes and he worries that when the federal stimulus money goes away next year, tuition will go up.

With Minnesota's unemployment rate still above 7 percent, students like Kelly and Thissen need education between high school and a bachelor's degree to help them achieve middle-class careers. The state not only has the duty to provide such a system, but to make sure such a system is easy and affordable to use.

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